2001: A Space Odyssey is probably the most review-proof film in the history of cinema. Critics who try to do an in-depth analysis always come off sounding like freshman philosophy students. In a lot of ways, 2001 is the ultimate cinematic Rorschach test. Any review winds up saying more about the reviewer than about the film itself.
Instead of trying to tell you what I think it all means, I will satisfy myself with saying that I think 2001 is a singularly important film. Aside from Citizen Kane, it may be structurally and stylistically the most significant film in the first 100 years of cinema. More than any other film, before or since, it shows that film can be used for something beyond mere storytelling. Almost all other “great films” still hold to a more traditional narrative structure.
Not so here. It would be pointless to summarize the plot of 2001, because the plot is almost beside the point. This is cinema as mood piece, the use of imagery to stir the mind in ways that go beyond reason. 2001 is a film to be experienced and then dwelt upon at length, rather than just watched. If no one comes to the same conclusions, so much the better. I seem to remember that director Stanley Kubrick compared the structure of this film to that of symphony. I think this is accurate. 2001 is as open to individual interpretation as any good piece of classical music.
I have said elsewhere that I would not classify this film as science fiction, unless one considers metaphysics to be a science. Still, Kubrick’s insistence upon rigid technical accuracy means that the science-fiction elements are some of the most sophisticated ever committed to film.
In this vein, the middle and later sections of the film which follow Heywood Floyd to the lunar crater Tycho and then follow Dave Bowman to Jupiter and beyond present us, the viewers of today, with a strange contradiction. Even though the film’s view of man’s relationship to technology is rather bleak, the level of technology portrayed for the years 1999-2001 appears wildly optimistic. It is fascinating to see just how big we were dreaming back in the 1960’s.
2001‘s predictions about the future are a wild collection of hits and misses. It’s true that there are no giant wheel-like space stations in orbit, but the first elements of a more modest station are already in place. Its interior, however, will not resemble the concourse at Heathrow. And although the Pan-Am space plane was overly optimistic, both about luxurious 747-style passenger travel in space and also about the existence of the airline itself, the design of the ship does accurately predict the basic shape of the space shuttle we currently fly.
Like I said, the film’s view of man’s relationship to his machines is almost relentlessly pessimistic. How could it be otherwise when the only character with a semblance of a personality is a sentient supercomputer, and a homicidal one at that? The scene in which the HAL 9000 kills the still hibernating astronauts is especially chilling when the camera focuses on the computer ubiquitous red eye, like a traditional movie would dwell on the face of a murderer surveying his handiwork. With a human killer, we could read the expression on the face, maniacal glee or tortured guilt. With HAL, the lack of any possibility of expression means that we have a killer whose motives are both unknown and unknowable. I challenge even the makers of The Blair Witch Project to concoct a scarier scenario than that.
And the following scene, in which the pitiless killer begs for its own existence as David Bowman coldly and mechanically disassembles its higher mental functions, adds an equally chilling coda to that idea. Our attempt to create technology in our own image has succeeded in duplicating even the darker corners of our nature.
The human characters are overshadowed by both HAL and the alien monolith, but unlike other technology-driven effects films, this is not accidental or a deficiency. In 2001, the human characters are almost elements of the scenery, their interaction part of the background noise. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) is a non-stop stream of unctuous pleasantries. His bland company-man exterior makes his reminder that security oaths will be required from anyone who knows about the monolith all the more ominous. He seems like a nice-enough guy, but his words hint at rather authoritarian attitudes.
Astronauts Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), on the other hand, seem to have totally submerged their personalities into their jobs, until they almost act like machines. Their responses seem almost programmed, automatic, while their computer goes about having a nervous breakdown. I found it ironically amusing when, in response to a reporter’s question, Poole says that HAL acts like he has emotions, and says so in the most unemotional voice of which a human is capable.
2001 is not a movie for the people who log into the Video section of Amazon.com and blather that Armageddon is “the greatest movie ever made!” This film makes demands that its audience try to understand what it is trying to say without it being explained, but doesn’t care if we fail to do so. The pace is almost glacial at times, but the film rewards and doesn’t bore those willing to make the effort.